Turning his back on Syria will damage Trump's ability to confront Iran
The US president believes that Syria is lost to Washington, but does not appreciate the impact of his decisions
We are only a few days into 2019, and already the US administration is sending confusing signals about its approach to some of the main issues it is likely to encounter during the course of the year.
By far the most startling development has been President Donald Trump’s announcement over the festive break that he intends to withdraw the 2,000 troops Washington still has deployed in Syria.
While the military campaign against ISIS is drawing to a close, many of the issues relating to Syria’s long-running civil war still remain unresolved, not least the fate of the Kurdish fighters who have been loyal and effective allies of the US-led coalition. Without US protection, there are well-founded fears the Kurds could find themselves either targeted by Turkey, which remains concerned about the formation of an independent Kurdish homeland, or the Assad regime, which remains committed to reclaiming all Syrian territory under its control.
But, as Mr Trump made clear during a 95-minute cabinet meeting at the White House earlier this week, the president believes that Syria is “lost” so far as Washington is concerned, and that the time has come for the White House to cut its losses by withdrawing American forces over a “period of time”.
Ever since entering the White House, Mr Trump has said he has little appetite for committing US forces to costly and difficult overseas military interventions, unless it is absolutely in America’s national interest to do so.
Consequently, his hard-nosed approach to America’s foreign military entanglements has also led to questions being raised about Washington’s continuing commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan, where the US still has around 14,000 troops fighting in support of the Afghan government. The president’s announcement that he intends to cut the American force by 7,000 by the summer is said to be the main reason behind the resignation of the much-respected defence secretary Jim Mattis.
Mr Trump is now claiming that he “essentially fired” Mr Mattis, who was keen to maintain American troops levels in Afghanistan at their current level, because the president believes his former defence secretary’s handling of the Afghan mission had not been “too good”.
But while Mr Trump’s announcements concerning Syria and Afghanistan might give the impression that his main focus is to scale down America’s military involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia, his surprise visit to US forces in Iraq over Christmas suggested that, in other parts of the region, the president remains committed to maintaining America’s military presence.
Ostensibly, the president’s visit to the Al Asad air base to the west of Baghdad was to give his personal thanks to the estimated 4,000 troops based in Iraq who have been involved in the fight to destroy ISIS.
“Two years ago, when I became president, they were a very dominant group,” Mr Trump declared. “Today they're not so dominant any more. Great job."
Mr Trump also said that, despite his announcements regarding Syria and Afghanistan, he had no intention of withdrawing American forces from Iraq. He even suggested that the US could use its military presence in Iraq as a forward base if it "wanted to do something in Syria".
The other reason, though, that Mr Trump is so keen to maintain Washington’s military engagement with Iraq is that maintaining good relations with Baghdad is vital to his administration’s wider goal of confronting Iran over its continued meddling in the affairs of the Arab world.
If Washington is to stand any chance of increasing the pressure on Tehran to change its behaviour, then having a strong alliance with Iraq is vital to its chances of success.
And on this front, the White House still has much work to do.
The recent appointment of Adel Abdul Mahdi as Iraq’s new prime minister has certainly been a welcome development so far as Washington is concerned, as he is regarded as a pragmatist who will resist Iran’s attempts to dominate Iraq’s domestic political agenda.
But the fact that a planned meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Mahdi had to be cancelled because of disagreements over how it should be conducted suggests the White House still has a lot of work to do before a good working relationship is established between Baghdad and Washington.
There will also be many, both in Washington and elsewhere, who will question why, if the president is really serious about confronting Iran, he is preparing to withdraw American forces from Syria, a country that remains Tehran’s most important ally in the Arab world?
The answer lies in the reality of the situation on the ground where, because of key foreign policy mistakes dating back to the Obama era, the dominant foreign powers in Syria today are Russia and Iran, with the Americans being confined to the perimeters of the conflict.
The days when Washington policymakers still clung to the notion that the Assad regime could be overthrown are long gone and, with the main military campaign against Isis drawing to a close, Mr Trump’s desire to end Washington’s unhappy involvement in the Syrian conflict is understandable.
But Mr Trump also needs to be aware that, if his main priority in the Middle East is to confront Iran, turning his back on Syria could make that task a great deal more difficult. Now that Tehran has achieved its main objective of keeping the Assad regime in power, it is looking to consolidate its military presence in Syria, one that in future might be used to undermine American efforts to challenge Iran.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor
Updated: January 3, 2019 05:43 PM